Foggia in the Second World War

Foggia MapFoggia, a city and provincial capital that few outside Italy have heard of and few from elsewhere in Italy appear to visit, had served as a communications and transport hub for Axis forces. Around half the size of Coventry, it included a major railway junction, and was also the centre of a complex of more than twenty airfields located within a radius of about 40 Km.  Capturing these would mean that Allies could bomb targets in the Balkans and southern Germany.

Given its strategic importance, Foggia was very heavily bombed. At the end of May 1943, the railway station was destroyed, and almost as many civilians were killed as on the main night of the Coventry Blitz in November 1940. But this was neither the most destructive nor deadly raid that summer: there were eight more. Raids on 22nd July and 19th August each resulted in the deaths of more than ten times the number killed in Coventry on the main night of the Coventry Blitz.

Where Patrick Maybin worked

Foggia was occupied by British troops at the end of September 1943. The first casualty clearing station to arrive there in early October (7 CCS) was posted in the building of the Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone at 1 Via Marchese de Rosa, about a kilometre west of the city centre. The fondazione had been established to house the elderly poor of Foggia. However, the building had already been in use as an Italian military hospital since 1941, and its residents and nuns had been evacuated during the course of the 1943 bombing raids.

Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia BaroneFondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone

The war diary of 7 CCS describes the building as it was at the end of the first week of October 1943:

“The building here is spacious and the rooms large, but the roof is much damaged and several of the rooms on the upper floor cannot be used. There is no water or electric light and the sewers in the town are disorganised. There are several large craters near the building.”

By 24th October, when they handed over the building to 19 CCS, Patrick Maybin’s unit, 7 CCS was able to report that:

“… the building occupied by the C.C.S. is now in fairly good order, the roof is nearly repaired and the electric lighting working.”

However, the destruction of the rest of the town was all too evident.

Patrick Maybin’s Arrival

On Monday 2nd November 1943 Patrick Maybin made his own way from Taranto to Foggia to rejoin his unit. This was his first active posting abroad, his first experience of working in the makeshift settings that follow in the wake of war, and his first experience of the near total destruction of a city.

In a letter to his friend John Hewitt the previous week he had described what a CCS was:

“A Casualty Clearing Station … is a kind of small very mobile hospital where casualties get their first specialist treatment …. There are 8 M.O.s and 8 Padres, which I think is a poor reflection on the competence of the medical staff.”

In a subsequent letter in early November he described conditions at the Fondazione building:

“We’re in Italy now – in a building in a much bombed town; a charitable institution of some sort, with a large marble staircase and terrazzo floors and high bare windows with most of the glass blown out, and crucifixes hanging in odd corners. The room I sleep in has a gruesome print of the Sacred Heart above my camp bed. We find it very cold here after Africa, and it’s rather luxurious to be in a building again. I write this in what was probably the Mother Superior’s private sitting room; next door my colleagues are sitting around an odd assortment of furniture reading six months old copies of “Punch” and the “Saturday Evening Post”, and a bridge four is in progress.”

The comfort of the interior of the Fondazione contrasted with the bleakness outside. One of his last poems, Italian Moonlight, juxtaposes the destruction of war with the straightforward normality of non-metropolitan life:

… … …Others that had
passed uneventful years here, thoughtlessly
counting life certain in this little
town found death impartial.

Foggia today

Foggia today is a modern provincial capital, with a population of around 150,000. It remains a communications centre and has some industry, but its agricultural sector is still significant. Foggia Railway station retains its importance as a junction of several main and branch lines. Its clean façade dominates a piazza at the north of the town centre.

Foggia Railway Station
Foggia Railway Station

About half a kilometre south of the station are the city’s two central squares.

Four major roads meet at the city’s main square, Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, where a narrow park almost a kilometre long extends eastwards.

A little to the west is the smaller Piazza Umberto Giordano, where the composer’s operas are celebrated by a statues of his characters.

Piazza Umberto GiordanoPiazza Umberto Giordano

Foggia also has an attractive cathedral, originally dating from the 1170s, and several other churches that have been well restored since the war.

Behind the attractive public buildings lie seemingly endless small streets, mundane, a little dusty, and somewhat chaotic.  Pavements are narrow and occasionally cracked, with the odd weed edging the kerbstones.  Patrick Maybin’s adjective for the town – ‘uneventful’ – seems to apply as much now it did 75 years ago.

Via Graticola, FoggiaVia Graticola, Foggia

My arrival in Foggia

My drive to Foggia included a two-day stay in Bari; I spent two days in Foggia also. As Bari belongs in a later part of Patrick Maybin’s journey, I’ll cover it in a future post.

Northern Puglia is flat or only very gently rolling: easy country for an army to advance over, and hard to defend. It was only on approaching Foggia that I saw my first high ground. Over on the right, ahead of me was the Gargano Peninsula, the spur of on the ‘boot’ of Italy.

My two days in Foggia

I stayed at a small and pretty guesthouse near the Piazza Umberto Giordano, where even my very poor Italian and the proprietor’s lack of English did not get in the way of what communication was needed. Add to that the unexpected discovery that they did an outstanding dinner: no menu, just pasta, main, and cake courses. In particular the pasta had a sublime texture: I learnt what al dente really means during my stay there.

My main objective was to locate the building of the Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone, which still provides accommodation for the elderly who need it. However, the rest of the town was of interest to me because in its gentle ordinariness it seems representative of Italy. As well as the railway station, squares, park and churches I visited the civic museum (where the staff were immensely pleasant and helpful) in the hope of finding out more about Foggia in the Second World War.

It was at the museum that I fully realised the extent of the destruction of the city by Allied bombing: the old museum had been very badly damaged and many of its contents destroyed in Summer 1943; what collection there is today has been built up since then; and the ground floor includes many fragments of statues from the town that were damaged in the bombing.

Back out on the street two marches were taking place.

The first of these was a formal police parade accompanied by a brass a band.  It traversed a route of about half a kilometre and culminated in a ceremony in Piazza Cesare Battisti, one of the smaller squares. Due to my lack of Italian, and the fact that even the most basic of tourist English is not spoken in Foggia, I never did find out what the occasion was. However the band and the parade provided a colourful half hour.

Police parade, Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018Police parade
Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018

The second was more visceral. I heard it from several blocks away: angry shouting and loud music. This moved to an assembly point near the Piazza Umberto Giordano, where its purpose became clear. Unlike almost all the other inhabitants of Foggia these people were black Africans, agricultural workers exploited by crooked gangmasters. One of the Italian agricultural unions, the USB, had taken up their case and they were there to make their voices heard.

USB Agricultural Workers’ March Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018USB Agricultural Workers’ March
Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018

Patrick Maybin’s departure

Patrick Maybin was not to stay long in Foggia. The Allies were making brisk progress up the eastern coast. Termoli had already been taken in October in a daring raid by British commandos. The front had already moved to around half an hour north of there, between the Trigno and Sangro rivers.

Less than two weeks after his arrival in Foggia, the Colonel commanding 19 CCS issued orders orders that included the following:

“Unit 3-ton Lorry will collect N.A.A.F.I. stores on Tues. 16 Nov. and remain loaded. Sister’s valises will be loaded on this lorry, which will proceed in rear of ambulance conveying Sisters, (date and time to be notified).

Capt Maybin R.A.M.C., will travel to new location on unit 3-ton lorry mentioned above.”

My departure

The road journey from Foggia to Termoli takes about an hour. I diverted to visit the seaside town of Manfredonia on the way. As Manfredonia also belongs in a later part of Patrick Maybin’s journey, I’ll cover it in a future post.

Patrick Maybin: 2nd to 14th November 1943
Neil Maybin: 11th to 13th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
WO 177/633 – 7 CCS War Diary, September to July 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 27 October 1943
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 6 November 1943
Foggia Airfield Complex (Wikipedia)
Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone (Foundation website via Google Translate)
Italian Moonlight – poem by Patrick Maybin
Agricultural workers demonstration (USB website via Google translate)


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